That wonderful wife of mine—she wears me out!
Off the couch on a Sunday afternoon
An easy Sunday afternoon, and I’m stretched out on the couch for the traditional Sunday afternoon nap. Before I close my eyes, I look over at her in her recliner, her bright blue eyes show a trace of sadness. Her perpetual smile is upside down.
“What?” I challenge her.
“Are you gonna sleep away this afternoon?”
“Well, what did you have in mind?” I groaned. I knew where this was headed. Maybe if I burrow down a bit further into the couch, I won’t have to move.
“We could get outside and do something.”
Like what? I rolled over and surveyed the ceiling while I waited for the inevitable reply.
“Let’s check out the Badlands. It’s a nice day. Maybe spring is turning things green. Maybe we’d see some bluebirds and crocuses.”
I hoped I could appeal to her practical side. “Let’s say home and save our energy and our gas money.”
“It will be good for us. Get us in better shape for summer hiking. We can afford it.”
I didn’t say anything. I knew she was right. A war was raging: my body wanted to argue with my mind. My body surrendered. I rolled off the couch. My day was about to change.
Down the road
20 minutes later we were headed down Highway 200. Summit Trail was our target, just north of Grassy Butte, and south of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit.
We pulled over at Grassy Butte to get a few photos of the historic Post Office building. A log cabin covered in adobe clay with a grass roof. The skies were blue, the light was good. The image would turn out useful for an organization that requested the photos for a publication.
She rationalized. “If we can sell a couple of these images, it will pay for the fuel.”
Yep, she was right. Again. That’s the business side of her energetic, enthusiastic self.
The couch became a distant memory of some long forgotten place. I was still homesick to return to it. Things were about to change.
At Summit Trail
Back in the Jeep for 10 miles further and we pulled in to the Summit Trail campground. The campground is a treeless loop off of Highway 85. There are a few campsites and shelters, but not many people use it. So we had it to ourselves.
We parked the Jeep, lifted the gate and off we went, ignoring the well-worn path. Though Summit Campground gets little use, the broken Summit Trail is used on occasion.
Summit Trail has been closed since massive erosion and sliding hillsides wiped out part of the trail in 2012. It’s still public ground, according to the valuable Forest Service Map.
A few of the trail markers still exist – enough to pick our way across the grassland to the brink of the Badlands.
The last time we were here, a year ago, we made up our own path to the west. It was rewarding. We hiked to some awesome passes and spectacular views. We hoped for the same, this time — and we would get it, too!
Across the grasslands
Somewhere at about this point. I shifted gears. Now, I was no longer in park, but in 4-wheel-drive, or actually two-leg drive. So, with fresh legs and good energy, we took a few shortcuts through the trees to get to the hilltop. We kept up a good pace.
This was our third hike of the season. Our two previous warm-up hikes in the Badlands this spring burned 1,000 winter calories on one trip and 1,300 on another. We hoped this would do the same. Hopefully, spring was here and we would no longer need that extra, um, well, you know, “insulation” we’d packed on all winter. In the end, this hike topped the two previous hikes.
On the trail
By golly, if that wonderful wife of mine was going to wear me out this afternoon, it was going to be at my speed — and my path, taking shortcuts around Summit Trail. So, we hustled down a hillside, and back up to get to the grassland prairie. My mindset a fast pace across the grassland – probably faster than my out of shape body could match It turned in to more of a march than a leisurely spring stroll until we saw them.
There they were. The first signs of spring – crocuses. She got in close to photograph a few. That was okay. It gave me a chance to catch my breath, old out-of-shape man that I am. My speed and fitness were on two different levels. My energy was about to be restored.
Now that we knew crocuses were out, we slowed down a bit, looking for more of the fresh buds. Many were not open; it appeared those that were had just opened that morning.
A mile and a half into the hike, we got to the prize we were looking for. Our reward.
The stunning views, and the tricky narrow crossings from one hilltop to the next. My energy returned.
The last hill
Yes, much of the trail is wiped out. Fortunately, it was dry enough that what had been late winter mud was now crunchy and safe from slips and slides.
The last hill was more than we were prepared to climb – at least that’s what our legs said. I swear I could hear my legs whisper “Aw come on, man! Don’t do it! If you don’t turn around right now, we’re gonna make your next few days really sore!”
They weren’t kidding.
“Shush!” I told my legs. “Just checking out the possibilities.”
We scouted one direction for about 30 yards. It was a dead-end. So, we tried wrapping around the hill the other direction. There was no trail, no path, but it was apparent by the tracks we saw, bighorn sheep and deer had been here. I walked as far as I felt safe, stopped to check out the view, and there was my wife, back where I’d entered this tricky area.
At the end of the trail
She planted herself firmly on a safe spot. “Oh, no way. I’m not going there!” She dug in and was there to stay.
“That’s okay, I will. I just want to see what the potential is.”
I knew my adventurous sons, both 30-something wouldn’t have stopped. But I’m not 30-years old. I stopped. Sure, I debated whether to continue, but on the other hand, a 200-300 foot fall was not on my to-do-list for the day.
The trail goes no farther — just down a few hundred feet.
So, we turned around. At this point, we were 1.6 miles from our start. Our legs were no longer fresh, so our pace was a bit slower. That speed we began with was not going to happen now. We were no longer hustling down one slope and up the next.
We stopped often to rest and drink water. Perched on jutting rocks and shelves we took in the valley below and around us. We mentally plotted what it would take to get to the top of that hill where we had turned around. There are not many options. Steep hillsides limit choices unless you want to make a very bumpy and fast trip down.
“I think the north side of that hill is the way we need to explore to get to the top,” I suggested. “Next time. South-facing hills are more baked and smooth. The north side has more trees, and maybe more paths”
“Well, we did take that little detour to see what was over there. It didn’t go anywhere,” she reminded me.
“You’re right, at least not at this level.”
I applied some of my aged wilderness wisdom. “I think this may be a case of having to go down to go up. If we dropped down to the next flat area around to the north, I think we’ll find a way up.”
“Not now,” she said. “It’s time to go back.”
She was right, as usual. She’s good for that – being right.
An hour and a half ago, the sun was shining, with a bank of clouds to the southwest. Those clouds had moved in. It was getting colder. When we started the temperatures was about 66 degrees. Now it was about 60, which is still perfect temps for hiking. But this time of day, temperatures keep slipping down. A good time to return to the Jeep.
3.28 miles according to the Track My Hike app on my phone. 1,400 calories burned. 2 hours and 8 minutes. With a 333 feet elevation differential. From the lowest point to the highest point.
“I think we can take that farther, next time,” I said.
“Yes, but only after we’re in better shape. We’ll need fresh legs to get up that last hillside.”
“We can do it. Look at this.” I showed her a satellite view of where we had been. The photo showed potential. “It looks like once we get on top of that hill, there will be a choice of ridges to follow. It looks like we could go quite a ways further.” We had stopped at a hill face whose length clearly extended another mile into the Badlands.
“Next time,” she agreed.
“Next time it is,” I nodded. In my mind, I knew it would be quite a while before that next time happened. So many trails, so little time. We already knew our next exploration would be in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit at Medora. We had two or three marked trails in mind – all of them to get us in shape for a planned cross-country hike on unmarked trails later this summer.
Next time, Jones Creek? Talkington? Paddock? Got any suggestions? Care to share? We’d love to hear your ideas.
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